by Satchit Bhogle
Bal Thackeray, at 86, has finally passed away, leaving behind a legacy of right-wing Hindu nationalism, Marathi sub-nationalism and political demagoguery. With his death, an age-old question must be asked: Where must freedom of movement and trade surrender to local interests? Do linguistic groups have the right to defend the identity of their city from demographic changes brought about by the caprices of the market? Can locals stop migrants from their own country from entering their city?
To understand Thackeray and his politics, we must delve into history. The British left India in a disorganized state. The East India Company had acquired territories village by village, and arbitrarily integrated them into one of the three Presidencies arbitrarily. As a result, Bombay State became a heterogeneous mix of Marathi, Gujarati, Sindhi and Kannada speakers. Across the nation, language movements began for the promotion of regionalistic, sub-national interests. In 1956, the Indian states were reorganized on linguistic lines. The creation of Maharashtra, however, did not take place until 1960, due to an ongoing battle over the status of Mumbai (then Bombay). Mumbai then, as it is now, is a city that is desperately searching for an identity. Geographically, Mumbai is within the territory of Maharashtra, and its largest linguistic group is Marathi. During the struggle for independence, Mumbai emerged as the hub of Marathi literature and culture. However, to consider Mumbai a “Marathi city” is a tenuous proposition at best. Historically, “Bombay” was built by others: it was originally inhabited by Konkani-speaking Koli fishermen, and developed into a major port first by the British, and then by Gujarati and Parsi industrialists. Crucially, the great unifier of the Maratha territories and “patron saint” of the Shiv Sena, Chhatrapati Shivaji, never controlled Bombay. Linguistically too, the claim does not hold water: independent India has never seen a Marathi majority in Mumbai. Today, Marathi speakers form only about 25-30% of Mumbai’s population.
Balasaheb’s father, Prabodhankar Thackeray, was one of the forerunners in the Samyukta Maharashtra Chalval, the movement for a Maharashtra that included the city of Bombay. It was from this background that Balasaheb’s political ideology emerged. The Shiv Sena was created in 1966 as a sons of the soil political organisation. The growing industry in Mumbai attracted labour from across the country, and to cater to their needs, restaurateurs from South India. Maharashtrians have traditionally not had many mercantile communities, and though in the 18th century Shivaji had extended an invitation to merchants from Gujarat and Rajasthan to settle in his kingdom, his sena did not follow suit. Thackeray fomented hatred against South Indians, whom he claimed were stealing jobs that should go to Maharashtrians.
Should states give preference to the linguistic group that dominated sixty years ago? Yes, the Thackerays feel, and neither is this a fringe sentiment nor is it entirely illegitimate. Especially in Mumbai, there is a sense of betrayal and anger among Maharashtrians that their interests are not being protected. Ostensibly part of the “dominant” community, they are not at liberty to create educational institutes with reservations for Marathi speakers or those domiciled in Maharashtra, even while other communities protect their own in the best colleges in Mumbai. Few industrialists are Marathi. The poorer Maharashtrians suffer competition from North Indians willing to work for less, and the richer from the best talent in the country congregating in the city. Moreover, the city is suffocating. Mumbai is the dreamland of immigrants, but it can hold no more. The city’s infrastructure cannot support the thousands of families that come to Mumbai everyday, largely from the state’s interiors and North India.
The Shiv Sena’s vote base of generations-old Mumbaikars may be eroding, as rapid migration to Mumbai is changing what it means to be a Mumbaikar. As property prices soar, Maharashtrians are being pushed further and further beyond the peripheries of the city, and now, the archetypal Mumbaikar traces his roots to outside Mumbai. Mumbai is a treasure of opportunity, but amidst the bickering and violence, it is owned by no one. The other side of the problem of too few resources for too many people is that neither the politicians who control Mumbai (elected from the interiors of Maharashtra where Marathi is still the dominant language) nor the people feel sufficiently emotionally connected to the city to tackle its fundamental infrastructural problems.
Mumbai’s problems of overpopulation are directly linked to the failure of governments to create jobs and encourage investment outside the major metropolitan areas. Maharashtra is disproportionately reliant on Mumbai, and has failed to spread development outside Mumbai and Pune. At the same time, blame has to be laid at the door of the governments in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar over the last 60 years, where a lack of development has forced already overpopulated cities like Mumbai and Delhi to provide for its people. People will (and it is their right to) migrate to cities where they have a real chance of realizing the Great Indian Dream, but it is in the cities where political ideologies like those of the Shiv Sena thrive. Fear is their vote bank: fear of losing livelihood, ancestral homes and culture to outsiders. Perhaps that is why the Shiv Sena, despite ruling the state between 1995 and 1999, failed to empower Maharashtrians in and outside Mumbai.
The Samyukta Maharashtra Movement, as well as the principal ideology of the Shiv Sena, were about furthering Marathi interests, yet the Marathi manoos cuts as sorry a figure in “his” city as he did in the 1950s. Bereft of opportunities for education and employment, he throws in his lot with demagogues like Bal Thackeray, whose response to gaps in policy is violence and sloganeering. The Shiv Sena have always fought for “Marathi pride”, and while the Thackerays can be fed, clothed and sheltered by pride, ordinary people need food and money, which require investment. On the day of Balasaheb Thackeray’s funeral, the entire city came to a standstill, with public transport suspended, and shops closed, either due to fear of vandalism or actual threat from Shiv Sainiks. As two lakh people streamed in to Mumbai to witness the spectacle of Thackeray’s funeral, the entire city ceased to function. Even in death, Balasaheb stayed true to his politics: the grand gesture, the danger of violence and the livelihood of the aam aadmi suffering.
(Satchit Bhogle is an Associate Articles Editor with the Journal of Indian Law and Society)